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Levine's Level-Headed Voice

Posted By: Robert Levin on July 10, 2002
Arthur Levine brings calm and reason to the inflamed debate over the U.S. Supreme Court's Zelman decision on school vouchers. His forecasts about the likely scenarios to follow strike me as sound and well-founded.

It is certainly not popular for faculty in liberal-leaning institutions (including many colleges of education, my own included) to give any credence to the Supreme Court majority's position. It is also unnatural for those of us who have long opposed -- and continue to oppose -- organized intrusions of the religious-right lobby in the public sector to have any sympathy for such a decision. My initial reactions to hearing the news were negative. However, having read the extended excerpts of all the justices' opinions published in the national press, I developed more sympathy for and understanding of the majority position.

Furthermore, I believe the public sector -- right down to us, the voters, citizens, and taxpayers in our respective states -- have to a large extent brought this type of decision upon ourselves. Ohio is just one example, where all the suburban Cleveland districts refused to have anything to do with Cleveland schoolchildren, thus turning their backs on a public need and, in my view, an ethical mandate. The fact that we citizens continue to permit the local property tax to be the foundation of school funding, thus sentencing our own respective states' children to deplorable educational conditions in low-income areas, underscores our own public cynicism regarding equality of educational opportunity. We, the public sector, have not done our jobs, and we have not been serious -- despite our rhetoric -- about improving public education for under-served populations. So just which improvement efforts are we so certain will be undermined by the type of small change (as Mr. Levine points out) likely to spin off from the Zelman decision?

One point Mr. Levine did not address is whether we should feel any concern whatsoever about extending to grades 12 and below the kinds of government support for religious-sponsored education that has long existed in higher education. Mr. Levine notes the apparently small step of doing so in his essay. However, our law has created several other barriers to church-state entanglements for school children in public school that do not exist -- one might even say are contradicted -- in policies and practices affecting adults, whether at a university, at the opening of a Congressional session, or indeed within the Supreme Court itself ("God save this honorable court...").

Our law does seem to have established a higher standard of church-state separation within the public elementary and secondary school than at any other site in society. I believe there are reasons for this, having largely to do with a sense of the vulnerability of the young. Does the Zelman decision lower this evolving standard that has, for about a half-century, provided a higher wall of church-state separation for children than for adults? Is this a worrisome or potentially worrisome event?

Robert A. Levin
Associate Professor of Education
Youngstown State University
Associate Editor
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 Levine's Level-Headed Voice by Robert Levin on July 10, 2002
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